Serenade for Oil City
After participating in Writers-in-the-Gardens, poet Philip Terman joked that he now knows what it feels like to be a “carnival side show act.”
On September 11, he was one of the five writers who participated in City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s annual literary walking tour on Pittsburgh’s North Side. During this event, the audience move from garden to garden, hearing a different writer read in each location. This year, the writers were all from Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press.
Terman, whose fourth book of poetry The Torah Garden is forthcoming from Autumn House, read his poetry to a rotating group of people visiting the garden of North Side resident and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Diana Nelson Jones.
He said the setting he was “perfect” for his work. “I was delighted to read my garden poems there. Many of the things Diana grows appear in my poems—tomatoes, basil, and even her frog pond,” he said.
He added that he preferred this setting to the more formal lecture hall. He said, “I think more readings could occur in ‘open spaces,” as poetry is connected to the world, to things we do and how we spend our time.”
Here we present an excerpt of his long poem “Serenade for Oil City, Pennsylvania,” in which he tells the story of the small Pennsylvania town once at the center of the oil industry.
Serenade for Oil City, Pennsylvania: An Excerpt
Tonight I want to sing to you, Oil City,
home of artist Butch Quinn who is drinking a beer
at midnight and drawing figures on canvas
with cigarette ash—muralist of refrigerators
dumped into the woods, the artist of logs left
by the saw-mill, you’ll find him at The Brass Rail
ogling the single mothers back in college,
abused and abandoned, their exes steal their tires
and crosswire their engines: town of despair,
let’s paint you gray, let’s shimmy on down
to the dollar store where on the racks are the royal robes
worn by every citizen. Let’s sing the laid-off song,
the downsize song, the song that says we’re going south,
sorry, let’s sing the welfare romp. Let’s do
Jake’s Antiques, the old men behind the counter
sitting on torn leather chairs and smoking, staring
out of the dusty window at the line forming
in front of the Pennsylvania Lottery—one of them
a few years back actually won big, and has been in
and out of jail ever since—let’s collect lottery tickets
and beer caps and cigarette butts and the smoke
that floats through the air. Let’s open an account
of what we’ve lost: Quaker State, Continental Can,
Pittsburgh Steel, all of the hospital but the Mental Health Unit,
let’s line up all the Prozac pills like coins along
the Petroliam Bridge and offer our naked bodies
to the telemarketing companies and Wal-Mart.
Once we were a city of Rockefellers.
Once we bled our earth out of its sweet juices.
Let’s walk down to where the water cuts the town
in half, shielded from the sharp beams of Route 8
that glow like searchlights now that dusk seeped
beyond the hills steep as walls pushed back against
boarded-up buildings and dead-end streets.
Smell grease in the air, chemicals floating
like wounded birds from the one refinery left,
and if that goes, we’re done.
CLICK HERE to purchase a copy of Rabbis of the Air by Terman
Philip Terman’s books include The House of Sages, Book of the Unbroken Days and Rabbis of the Air. His poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Georgia Review, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, Tikkun, and Blood to Remember: American Poets Respond to the Holocaust. He is the recipient of the Sow’s Ear Chapbook Award, The Kenneth Patchen Prize, and the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poems on the Jewish Experience. He teaches creative writing and literature at Clarion University and co-directs the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival at the Chautauqua Institute. With his wife Christine and their daughters Mimi and Bella, he resides in a red-brick schoolhouse outside of Grove City, Pennsylvania.